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A History of the Native People of Canada
Volume II (1,000 B.C. to A.D. 500)

Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Culture (Précis, Chapter 23)

Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture is composed of three complexes called Meadowood, Saugeen, and Point Peninsula. As used in this work, the word 'complex' can have a number of shades of meaning. It can be used to describe certain archaeological entities that lack sufficient information to be classified as cultures. The term is also used to describe early to late sequential phases of a single cultural development such as the Pelican Lake (early) and Besant (late) complexes of Late Plains culture as well as complexes that are contemporary but geographically discrete entities within a single culture such as the present instance. The term 'complex' can also be used to describe a particular archaeological phenomenon that cross-cuts a number of different cultures, such as the Adena mortuary complex. Thus, the intended meaning of the word changes with the context within which it is used. Such looseness in contextual meaning may be irritating to some but it does suit the ever-changing nature of archaeological information and avoids implications of preciseness where preciseness does not exist. The definition of a culture as an entity composed of a number of complexes of temporal, spatial, or phenomenon character is appropriate to the intent of this work. Temporal and spatial complexes, however, are composed of a number of independent societies and phenomena complexes may influence some societies within a culture but not others.

Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Culture Grave Offerings Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Culture Grave Offerings

With the exception of the two side-notched Meadowood type arrowheads, all of the illustrated objects are generally only found in graves. This suggests that such offerings held a particular symbolic significance associated with death and the afterlife. The polished slate birdstone at the top and probably the barstone on the lower left may represent the last vestiges of the spearthrower weight. The function of the so-called boatstone on the extreme left is unknown. Typical of the Meadowood mortuary complex are the Meadowood points, the birdstone, and the two-holed polished slate gorget. Typical of the Adena mortuary complex are the boatstone, the blocked-end tubular pipe at the bottom, and the barstone. The large stemmed biface blade to the right is more typical of the Red Ocher mortuary complex but can also occur in the Meadowood mortuary complex.

(Reproduced from Wright 1972a: Colour Plate III)

All three complexes of Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture fall into what is commonly referred to as the Early and Middle Woodland or Initial Woodland period spanning 1,000 B.C. to A.D. 500. The word 'Woodland' identifies the appearance of a single new item of technology - pottery, and for classificatory convenience brings the pre-pottery Archaic period to an end. The territory occupied by Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture was the Lower Great Lakes, the eastern part of the Lake Huron basin, the St. Lawrence River to Québec City, the western portion of the Eastern Townships of Québec, northern New York and Vermont. A number of factors have complicated the process of attempting a synthesis of the archaeology of this region during Period IV. While the territory was mainly covered by the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forest vegetation province, its southern and northern margins were occupied by the Deciduous Forest and the Boreal Forest vegetation provinces, respectively. These different vegetation provinces were, in large part, home to different archaeological cultures which interacted with their neighbours in complex ways. Archaeological reports have tended to be regionally focused with the archaeological record being presented as seen from Ontario, Québec, Vermont, New York or, more often, from even smaller regions within the preceding provinces and states. This regional focus has been further exacerbated by a lack of agreement on classification systems including even general terms like 'Early Woodland'. Archaeological sites are typically composed of multiple occupations spanning thousands of years that are difficult or impossible to isolate into individual occupations. This has led to a heavy reliance upon cultural 'diagnostics' to interpret the archaeological record. Finally, the elaborate mortuary ceremonialism that characterizes Period IV has tended to be over-emphasized in the reconstruction of the culture history. Despite the foregoing problems, the archaeology of the region is one of the richest in the country.

There is a consensus that Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture developed out of a late Archaic cultural base, Middle Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture, although there is considerable disagreement regarding how this actually came about. Difficulties present themselves in tracing developments within Middle Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture towards the end of Period III. There are reasons for favouring a Middle Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture (Laurentian Archaic) ancestry for the culture currently under consideration. There is some agreement that Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture gave rise to the historically documented Iroquoian-speaking peoples of northeastern North America with the probability that some adjacent Algonquian-speakers also shared in this development.

It was once believed that with the appearance of pottery vessels and the genesis of the 'Early Woodland' a major cultural developmental stage was achieved. The appearance of pottery vessels, burial mounds, and more elaborate technologies were regarded as evidence of a change from a hunting, fishing, and gathering economy to a horticultural one. It is now apparent that, though the use of plants intensified with time, the food economy was still based upon hunting and gathering. The foregoing observation does not belittle the fact that by 500 B.C. squash was being grown on sites in adjacent Michigan and Ohio suggesting that this tropical cultigen was likely being grown in Southern Ontario as well. Indeed, squash could well have been grown much earlier as indicated by squash rind dated to 4,000 B.C. from a site in Maine (Petersen 1991: 140-143).

In addition to the introduction of pottery from the south, three other important events characterize Period IV. Sometime around the beginning of Period IV the bow and arrow weapon system was widely adopted and eventually replaced the earlier spearthrower. At the same time entrepreneurial bands in control of the high quality western Onondaga chert deposits between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie in Ontario and New York developed a sophisticated production system of specialized chipped preforms. These preforms were widely traded throughout northeastern North America between 1,000 and 500 B.C. Underlying the development of this unusual commercial enterprise was likely the need for a more precise type of weapon tip for the new bow and arrow weapon system. The fact that western Onondaga chert was mainly used in the production of the preforms would also suggest that some form of symbolic significance was attached to the material. Shortly following the foregoing events was the appearance of Ohio Valley mortuary ceremonialism that would exert an influence in the region for approximately 1,000 years.

Pottery vessels have been particularly valuable to archaeological interpretations. Pottery involves a plastic medium that preserves a range of cultural values as expressed in the form of motifs, decorative techniques, vessel form, and other attributes. Any modifications to the clay when in a plastic form are transformed into an imperishable stone-like hardness after firing. The detailed characteristics incorporated in pottery manufacture and decoration represent exceptionally sensitive indicators of trends and relationships through both time and space. While pottery is of considerable importance to archaeological interpretations throughout Period IV, it has also been the basis of some interpretational problems. It was initially assumed, and still is by most researchers, that 'Early Woodland' pottery is always represented by a particular variety of cord impressed pottery that preceded and was, in all instances, ancestral to 'Middle Woodland' pottery with its elaborate dentate impressed designs (Ferris and Spence 1995; Ritchie 1946; Ritchie and MacNeish 1949). The assumption of a chronological sequence of early cord impressed pottery followed by dentate stamped pottery has been particularly troublesome for the Canadian portion of the region under consideration as a number of dated 'Middle Woodland' sites have turned out to be contemporary with 'Early Woodland'. Further, the early corded pottery, which does represent one of the earliest pottery styles to be found across much of northeastern North America, is either peripheral to Canada or is generally found in association with 'Middle Woodland' pottery styles. The only habitation sites known to date in Canada that predominantly contain the early corded pottery and the equally distinctive chipped stone tool kit are the Batiscan and Lambert sites on the St. Lawrence River near Trois-Rivières (Levesque et al. 1964) and Québec City (Chrétien 1993), respectively. Similar habitation sites will likely be discovered in the Niagara Peninsula region between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie (Noble 1975) and along the northshore of Lake Erie (Spence et al. 1990). Whereas the earliest pottery from stratified sites on the New York side of Lake Ontario invariably are a cord impressed style called Vinette 1 (Ritchie 1944; Ritchie and MacNeish 1949) on the Ontario side of the Lake the earliest pottery from equivalent stratified sites is the quite different dentate stamped pottery (Ritchie 1949). If there is a chronological sequence of early cord impressed pottery leading into early dentate stamped pottery in the Canadian portion of the region under consideration then both the visibility of the evidence and the nature of the radiocarbon dates have been, indeed, perverse. At this point in time it would appear that when the local Archaic populations in most of eastern Canada adopted the idea of pottery from the south they proceeded to invent the 'Middle Woodland' decorative styles rather than simply replicating the corded pottery of their neighbours to the south and east. The heartland for the distinctive dentate stamped pottery style was likely in Southern Ontario and probably the extreme upper St. Lawrence River in Québec. From this area the northern pottery eventually diffused to the east, west and south. As people do not live in a vacuum, the two different pottery styles, cord impressed to the south and east and dentate stamped to the north and west, are frequently found associated on the same sites. Often, the people adopting one or the other of the two different pottery styles shared an otherwise common ancestry. With the exception of the specialized Meadowood complex chipped preforms and their finished tool derivatives, most of the non-pottery elements of the technology, settlement and subsistence patterns, as well as the mortuary systems, were shared by people who simply made different styles of pottery. While pot sherds are common on sites of this period and more readily lend themselves to classification than most other items of the technology, they have perhaps been too heavily relied upon in the reconstruction of the culture history. In this respect, while the Meadowood complex did develop out of the preceding Archaic and into the subsequent Point Peninsula complex (Tuck 1978: 4), it did this mainly in New York State, a limited portion of the St. Lawrence River between Trois-Rivières and Québec City, and probably Lake Champlain. Throughout most of Southern Ontario and immediately adjacent Québec, the development from Middle Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture proceeded directly to the Point Peninsula and Saugeen regional complexes without an intervening Meadowood or Early Woodland presence. The geographic relationship between these two early pottery styles and their partial contemporaneity continues to cause considerable debate (Ferris and Spence 1995; Fitting 1978: 50; Mason 1981: 271; Wright 1990: 495-496). Given the limited and often equivocal nature of the evidence, it is inadvisable to be too dogmatic, at this time, with regard to either the validity of the traditional lineal development of pottery styles from Early Woodland to Middle Woodland or a bimodal origin involving two distinctly different pottery traditions.

The earliest burial ceremonialism in Period IV, dating between 1,000 and 400 B.C., is referred to as the Meadowood mortuary complex and in Canada appears to be largely restricted to the St. Lawrence River Valley in Québec and the northshore of Lake Erie in Southern Ontario. With antecedents in the mortuary practices of Middle Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture, the Meadowood mortuary complex also shared many burial traits with the early Point Peninsula and Saugeen complexes with whom it was partially contemporary. A somewhat later mortuary complex, dating from 800 B.C. to A.D. 100, is called the Adena mortuary complex or, more commonly, the Middlesex complex (Spence et al. 1990). Unlike the Meadowood mortuary complex, the Adena mortuary complex was a product of influences emanating from the Ohio Valley that included earthen burial mounds and exotic Ohio Valley grave offerings. It was followed by the related Hopewell mortuary complex, also from the Ohio Valley, that disappeared just prior to the end of Period IV. Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture people practised an amalgam of Ohio Valley mortuary ceremonialism and local core belief systems derived from Period III. All of these various mortuary practices not only overlapped, to varying degrees in both time and defining characteristics, but they only flourished in certain geographically limited areas. This suggests that, while earlier mortuary ceremonialism underlaid all of the mortuary complexes of Period IV, specific regions participated more intensely in the ritual practices coming from the Ohio Valley.

Like their Middle Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture ancestors, the Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture people were organized into local bands which, during the warmer months of the year, coalesced at favourable fishing locales. Here the women, children, and the infirm could be left to tend fishnets and traps and gather shellfish and plant foods while the hunters ranged out from the base camp along the water routes in search of big game and other resources. An apparent innovation in the Saugeen complex was the ability to trap fish in rapids, likely using weirs to channel fish into the trap/net. Weir fishing in quieter water, of course, was practised much earlier. Archaeological evidence of human relationships are to be seen in the presence of alien pottery styles on many sites reflecting the need to draw spouses from other bands and even other cultures. With reference to the foregoing, it is believed that women manufactured the pottery vessels and brought their regional styles with them when they joined their husbands.

In summary, the appearance of pottery around 1,000 B.C., the adoption of the bow and arrow about the same time and the development of a specialized preform industry, and the appearance of mortuary ceremonialism originating in the Ohio Valley, coalesced to create an impression in the archaeological record that momentous change took place. It now appears that simply two new elements of technology, pottery and the bow and arrow, were adopted. Even the mortuary ideas coming from the Ohio Valley were only adopted by a very limited portion of the population. The way of life remained essentially unchanged from Period III and was not dramatically altered until the adoption of a corn-based horticulture economy between A.D. 500-1000.

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